Reporting under threat
If there is a bomb blast, there will be two kinds of people running towards the bombsite rather than away from it: the police and the media. Both have lost their lives due to the nature of their jobs. While the Pakistani police are still unsung and uncared for, the dangers to the Pakistani media we keep reading and hearing about. Or do we? There are of course the unions and press clubs that hold protests and rallies crying for media freedom and safety. Just last week, the Nawaz government announced a safety commission for journalists where issues of insurance, etc, would also be taken up. The sceptic in me is tempted to cryptically remark that, before insurance, assure every working journalist with an employment contract and a functional monthly salary, but I refrain. The focus is media safety.
Every May 3 – International Press Freedom Day – we are given the numbers of Pakistani journalists killed and threatened. Let me confess – they are just that: numbers. However, now the lives and thoughts behind these numbers have been documented by Adnan Rehmat and his colleagues at Civic Action Resources. Reporting Under Threat is a compilation of first person testimonials of 57 media personnel from all over Pakistan and one from Afghanistan. While I was expecting most of the testimonials to be from FATA or Balochistan, I was quite surprised to be proved wrong. There are four stories from the tribal areas, nine from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 17 from Balochistan, five from Punjab, three from Islamabad, one from Afghanistan and, addressing my ignorance, 18 stories from Sindh. While the FATA, Balochistan, Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa stories focused on militants, insurgents and security agencies, stories from Sindh and Punjab also featured the political elite: the police nexus against the media. Perils that women media personnel face are documented by two testimonials, namely of Asma Shirazi and Shumaila Jaffrey from Punjab. From this, are we supposed to interpret that (a) there are only women journalists in Pakistan, or (b) very few are reporting under threat, or (c) only two chose to tell their story?
The compilation is what Adnan Rehmat does best and that is to present the picture that we are loath to see from a human angle. Skimming through the book, I see so many names come alive. As one testimonial documents, “A journalist is only a one column story,” and we have read about the Musas, Shahzadas and Irfans of the journalist world. In the book, they become people – scared, helpless, yet stoic. As Ayub Tareen from Balochistan writes, “Death itself is not as painful, I think, as the message to carry out the threat of one’s execution.” Khalil ur Rahman adds, “We are all human beings and it is natural to desire that we die of natural causes than by the hands of trigger-happy militants that even the state cannot seemingly counter. We are just newsmen.”
Through these testimonials, a number of harsh realities are also brought home: the reality of being under-trained, underpaid and under-resourced. Lack of training that the book points to was of varying types. One is presented as, “A shoebox was lying there at the entrance. I thought it could prove to be valuable evidence so I decided to enter and bring it to the notice of the town police officer, Siddiqui. That decision of mine could have ended my life had it not been for Siddiqui. A grenade was planted in the box and we could have all died had I entered the room and touched the string attached.” In other words, very few media organisations have invested in the threat and safety training of their staff. This lack of training and being limited in options and resources is highlighted by another testimonial, “Most journalists in Pakistan hail from the lower middle and lower classes and do not get training and resources that can help them improve not just their professional skills, which can minimise risks, but also training and guidelines on safety training.”
Adnan and his colleagues at Civic Action Resources are former journalists themselves. True to their instincts, while putting together the compilation they have the headline catching ‘big name’ testimonials and then the local names. Going through the book, I found the big names testimonials paled in the face of the innate, brutal honesty of the field journalists. While the big names vow to speak and write the truth in spite of challenges, of how their sons will carry on after them, they are transparent in their condescending artificiality. I find myself identifying more with this young journalist who writes, “One of them had pried open my hands that were instinctively raised for forgiveness.” And, “After the attack on me, my family pressurised me to quit but I did not find any other source of income and have remained a full time journalist.”
The brutal truth: rummaging your soul to find the iota of bravery inside you that would be enough to carry on for one more day, one more hour. What I learnt from this compilation is that, more or less, like other Pakistanis, Pakistani journalists are also on their own. They might get the odd Rs 25,000 or Rs 200,000 after they are killed but, alive, they are on their own. As one journalist pointed out, “My organisation refused to even publish a single news item about the attack on me. I wrote letters to the president and chief justice of Pakistan but got no response. When I finally contacted higher ups in the police, I received a curt reply: this incident never happened.” While Sindh’s M D Umrani might write, “No story is worth my life or worth the media organisation that does not care for its workers,” Balochistan’s Irshad Mastoi hits the nail on the head by writing, “I curse this culture of breaking news that pushes some people to place their stories ahead of their lives.”
Altogether there is a need for an informative and heartfelt compilation that can use a thorough edit and some fact checking. For instance, on Page 42, the Peshawar Press Club suicide attack has been incorrectly mentioned as being in September 2009. There is another thing missing too – Adnan’s voice.
Adnan Rehmat is one of our premier media analysts and I was hoping to hear his voice too in the compilation. There is so much that the reader wants to hear from Adnan about. For instance, when Sindh’s Riaz Sohail states, “There is a new link brewing between the media and the public and it is not a friendly one,” one wants Adnan to comment and tease out the nuances of it. Or when Hasan Pathan pinpoints the lack of balance in most stories as a contributing factor to journalists being threatened or when media trainer Aurangzeb Zeb states, “How many of us have to accept (and hide behind) the empty solace of martyrdom as if violence that ‘martyrs’ people is justified, as if an exalted status in death is consolation enough for a terrible loss. And if martyrdom comes from dying for a cause, whose cause is sacred?” I hope, in the sequel, we hear from Adnan.